Steadily rising G-forces pull you firmly against the (deactivated) ejection seat as the sleek, two-seat, Marchetti S.211 jet nearly identical to the one you’re flying charges ever more steeply skyward. Then the airplane ahead starts a gradual roll to the left, and the gravitational forces pulling against you quickly relent. Slight left aileron and a barely perceptible relaxation in elevator pressure is all it takes to stay in position behind the lead jet as it gracefully guides you through a barrel roll, the flat and razor-sharp north Texas horizon rotating a full 360 degrees as the relative position of the two airplanes barely changes.
The view out the bubble canopy is panoramic, and the sensations strenuous and exhilarating, yet you force yourself to focus on the lead airplane to the exclusion of all else as you race along at more than 250 knots.
“This is the kind of teamwork and level of trust we’re accustomed to in military aviation,” said Chris Koelzer, president of Victory Aviation, a 5-year-old company in Denton, Texas, that teaches unusual attitude recoveries, jet formation flying, and S.211 type training. “But it’s not exclusive to the military. The same shared vision, accountability, and excellence can carry through to other pursuits, too.”
Victory Aviation flies a pair of Italian-built S.211s that served as advanced trainers for decades in the Republic of Singapore Air Force. A third airplane is being extensively modernized before it joins them.
The stylish aircraft were built in the 1980s and early 1990s but didn’t catch on then. Only Singapore, the Philippines, and Haiti bought them as military trainers, and a total of 60 were delivered worldwide. But now they’re gaining a new life on the civilian market, especially in the United States where 17 have been registered and flown and more are being restored.
The airplanes are powered by Pratt & Whitney JT15 engines that have logged millions of flight hours on Cessna Citation I and II corporate jets; they use U.S. batteries, brakes, tires, and other consumables; spare parts are available (although not plentiful); U.S. owners can license them under experimental/exhibition rules that allow wide latitude for updating, modernizing, and traveling in them; and the cost of flying and fueling them is less exorbitant than comparable Eastern bloc jets on the civilian market.
“These airplanes fly like Ferraris and they reflect their manufacturer’s best traditions of style, craftsmanship, and performance,” said Koelzer, a former U.S. Marine F/A–18 Hornet pilot. “When we get them, we make them even better.”
Victory Aviation’s wish list for improving the S.211 is much the same as for any other new airplane that shows up in Texas. Owners and pilots want more fuel for greater range, and air conditioning.
And just like any 30-something-year-old airplane, there’s a lot of catching up to do in avionics. Victory’s three airplanes illustrate the S.211’s continuing evolution.
The company’s first airplane is stock. It’s still got a “Dreamsicle” orange-and-white Singapore paint job, and the instrument panel is all analog. ForeFlight and an iPad are the main navigational source; most of its flying happens in a nearby airspace about 20 miles north of Denton, and a great deal of that is takeoff and landing practice.
The second airplane is painted in U.S. Navy livery and it’s easily mistaken for a T–45 Goshawk, an advanced trainer with a similarly raised back seat for the instructor. This S.211’s instrument panel is centered on a 10.4-inch Garmin G3X PFD/MFD, and a Garmin nav/com and G5 standby instrument give it modern capabilities, although the engine gauges are original.
The third S.211 is all Garmin glass—and it’s getting the additional fuel and air conditioning Texans covet.
Switching to a glass panel allows for the removal of a couple hundred pounds of obsolete military electronics. It also opens up space in the unpressurized nose cone. Baggage space is minimal in the S.211 where a small, unpressurized compartment in the belly fits a duffel bag or two.
“If you’re planning to bring golf clubs or surfboards, you should fly another airplane,” Koelzer said.
For additional fuel, the company is exploring external tanks and other possibilities.
Scott Howard, a veteran mechanic who’s worked on SR–71s and U–2s in the U.S. Air Force as well as former Soviet MiG–15s and –17s afterward, said modernizing the S.211 is novel and enjoyable.
“I like the challenge,” he said. “Two years ago, I’d never seen a Marchetti. Now, we’re maintaining them and making one of them completely modern. It’s going to be beautiful inside and out.”
tepping into the front seat of an S.211 is a simple matter of putting your left foot in a recessed step on the side of the fuselage, then swinging your right leg over the rail and stepping on the seat. Cockpit dimensions, like many other military airplanes, are a tight fit for big people.
The sturdy, side-hinged canopy locks up or down with heavy-duty latches. Engine start requires flipping four switches (battery, generator, inverter, and normal bus), turning the auxiliary boost pump to the On position, engaging the starter, and watching (and listening) for engine rpm to rise. When it goes beyond 10 percent, advance the throttle to idle and monitor temperatures and pressures.
Steering is standard with hydraulic toe brakes. The front seat is close to the ground like a glider, and that makes familiar markings such as the hold-short line appear gargantuan because you’re so close to them.
The pretakeoff checklist’s critical items include locking the canopy; retracting the speed brakes; placing flaps in the takeoff position; activating the auxiliary fuel pump; and neutralizing rudder, aileron, and elevator trim.
Takeoff acceleration is steady and the rudder pedals feel as though they have power steering. The shrieking engine mounted directly behind your shoulders shoves you forward at a quickening rate, and the nearness of the runway stripes amplifies the sensation of speed.
At a total aircraft weight of about 6,200 pounds (full fuel, two pilots), the engine’s 2,500 pounds of thrust provides plenty of push. The takeoff roll goes from zero to 100 knots in about 12 seconds and covers 2,200 feet. Once free of the ground, the S.211 comes into its own as the engine gulps more air and churns out more thrust. A 15-degree nose-up attitude results in an initial climb rate of 3,500 fpm.
Reduce engine rpm to about 97 percent (from the takeoff setting of 104 percent) and climb above 10,000 feet where indicated airspeeds in excess of 250 knots are allowed.
Steep turns are a video game in the glass-panel airplane. The pilot simply rolls to the desired angle of bank, pulls, and strives to keep the green G3X flight path marker on the white horizon line. Slow flight requires reducing power to near idle in a clean configuration, then watching, waiting, and feeling for the rumbling onset of a stall buffet at 102 knots and a crisp break at 99. Recovery is almost immediate with a slight reduction in angle of attack (forward stick) and power addition.
With landing gear and flaps down, the buffet and break take place at 90 and 87 KIAS respectively, and recovery is identical. The wing has a slight sweep, but it seems as benign as a straight-wing jet in the stall. A thick airfoil provides aerodynamic warning before the actual stall break.
At 11,000 feet, the S.211 is traveling 285 KTAS (240 KIAS) while consuming about 105 gallons an hour of jet fuel—and that’s well below full engine power. It’s an inefficient altitude for fuel economy, but ideal for aerobatics. The view out the bubble canopy is expansive, and I search in vain for cues to aid my faulty pitch orientation. An attitude that looks level to me is really a 5-degree climb. I’ve got to rely on the colorful Garmin G3X to find level flight.
At 220 KIAS, full aileron deflection gets the S.211 rolling about 140 degrees per second, and rolls to the left or right are complete in just under three seconds. The pilots sit at the center of the roll axis, so the airplane feels like it rolls around them. Loops, half-Cubans, and other over-the-top maneuvers are entered at 300 KIAS or more and a 4-G pull keeps them graceful and energetic.
In the airport traffic pattern, with landing gear and flaps down, get established on final approach at 120 KIAS, then slow to 110 at one mile and track the visual glideslope. Wipe off the power over the runway threshold, aim for the 1,000-foot fixed-distance markers, and oversized shock absorbers cushion the touchdown. For aero-braking, full back stick keeps the nosewheel off the pavement for up to 10 seconds, then light-to-moderate braking stops the airplane in about 3,000 feet. The S.211 has no reverse thrust, spoilers, or ground flaps but deploying the belly-mounted speed brake (via a thumb switch on the throttle) provides extra stopping power.
Victory encourages customers to fly the S.211 at least twice. The first hop in the back seat tends to be “sensory overload” for pilots new to the aircraft. When acclimated, they move to the front seat.
“This is a bucket-list item for many of our clients,” Koelzer said. “We want them to get the most out of the experience.”
Full S.211 checkouts in which the student performs a checkride with an FAA examiner to obtain the experimental-category equivalent of a type rating typically require eight to 15 hours of flight training.
Victory is planning to expand by placing S.211s in Florida and Nevada. The company also attends airshows (including EAA AirVenture and Sun ’n Fun) and travels to customer locations to provide flight training.
“We want to have an across-the-country reach with these airplanes,” Koelzer said. “We believe we’ve got the right people, the right ideas, and the right hardware to make that happen.”